Institutional Mission

Typically, U.S. higher education institutions espouse three main activities in the purpose of education—teaching, research, and public service (Weisbrod, Ballou, & Asch, 2008; Scott, 2006). Institutional mission and educational value statements reflect in a public way how these purposes of higher education are articulated by a given campus. To external stakeholders these may be cast as a private good—for the benefit of individuals who receive their degree or the community that benefits from an educated citizenry and workforce. To internal stakeholders, such as students, teaching may resonate; for faculty they may focus heavily on teaching, but also engage in service to the community. There is also a complex climate that runs throughout an intricate set of campus channels such as offices and administrative units each with their own responsibilities and personnel, properties and processes, each interacting with and shaping the institutional context. Within these different internal and external components and the campus mission, the guiding purpose of education within that campus is distinct.

Even as advances in technology and globalization have altered higher education (Scott, 2006), questions of purpose remain a critical feature. Institutions must remain flexible enough to ensure they can respond to the next wave of change, whether from innovations in technology, social change, or shifting economic realities. The ways that institutions respond to these external forces successfully, remains dependent on their ability to steer through these uncertainties. Each institution’s purpose and mission become essential tools in navigating change.

What is Institutional Mission?

Institutional mission is frequently assumed to express the aspirations and expectations—stated and unstated—that society has for institutions of higher education. Mission statements themselves can vary from long detailed accounts of institutional purpose, mission, values and goals or brief statements that articulate a campus vision. Mission statements have many audiences and roles from articulating a vision for student outcomes to serve as a guiding framework for decisions over resources. Others argue that the time and effort required to craft a shared statement of purpose is nothing more than “rhetorical pyrotechnics” (Morphew & Hartley, 2006, p. 457).

Even so, mission statements can serve as a public statement of campus priorities, consensus on campus-wide values, expectations for student learning and development and a statement of campus priorities for many years ahead (Meacham & Barrett, 2003, p. 6). Mission statements are often a summary of the institutional aims, values, and priorities. These statements with their sometimes ambiguous phrases or specific entries are often replicated by departments and other campus units who draft their own statements, including the departments of intercollegiate athletics.

Examining University and Athletics Mission Statements

Colleges and universities often develop formal statements of mission that articulate values, aims, or goals. Mission statements are often based on the 20th Century triad mission of the university: teaching, research, and public service and give attention to how the institution goes about pursuing these three areas of their mission. In some cases, communicating direction and definition of the university’s vision, in other cases illustrating what elements or behaviors the university does not endorse. These statements articulate messages are explicit and implicit, with direct and indirect approaches in style and language (Bernhard, 2016). A 2016 American Council on Education (ACE) report, The Student-Athlete, Academic Integrity, & Intercollegiate Athletics, highlighted the role of athletic program mission statements as a tool for institutional leaders to determine how mission should guide the athletic program operations.

In my courses I ask students to explore the topic of institutional mission and athletic department mission. Students are asked to question and interrogate how values and actions are communicated in campus and athletics mission statements and look for consistency between in athletic department and institutional core values. This exercise has evolved in some ways over the decade or so of teaching my courses, especially as the ways in which institutions engage in mission statement practices, and the internet technologies to make these statements available, have changed.

Students explore websites of various institutions, especially from campuses that they know, then use criteria to examine the department and institutional mission statements. There have been some consistent trends in my work with students engaging in this exercise. I have found that there are a wide range of deliberate and symbolic takeaways. Some mission statements can be easily found, others are challenging to find. Some athletic department and university mission statements are specific in detail, while some are limited and broadly written. For some campuses, there is great synergy between what is found in the athletic department mission statement and the campus mission statement. In other cases there is little or even no connection between the two. In the mission statement exercise with students, I ask them to examine the mission or vision statement and the institutional values and characteristics that are reflected in both the educational and athletic contexts. Students locate the distinct messages and values and determine if DeGioia’s (2005) logics are clear or broadly cast. In the exercise students to examine the following criteria:

  • 1. Find and review the institution’s mission statement and the athletic department mission statement.
  • • What distinct messages and values are communicated?
  • • Are DeGioia’s (2005) logics present? What logics are directly and indirectly stated?
  • 2. Describe the symbolic or not-text meanings, relationships, or values in the institutional and/or department statements.

Are these a compelling representation of the values directly stated?

Are other values implied?

  • 3. Compare the institutional messages and content to the messages and content in the athletic department mission statements.
  • • Where do they align and differ?
  • • Where on the continuum of logics are each of these statements? Are the messages consistent between athletics and the campus?
  • 4. What other information do we need to assess the similarities and differences between the campus values and values for varsity sports?
  • 5. Additional findings or observations about institutional values?

The discourse analysis of athletic program and campus mission statements helps reveal points of symbolic synergy and disconnect. While this exercise is conducted outside of the campus context, the results offer a useful starting point for where to begin asking questions about the purpose of education, what should be the purpose, and the challenges of meeting the ideals we set for ourselves on our campus and in our athletic program.

Teaching, Research, and Service

The triad of teaching, research, and public service as the primary aims of higher education are also flanked with a particular set of values. Although among large, public universities, the institutional mission is heavily focused on research and generating new knowledge, teaching and public service are integral to the social purpose of public universities.

All three components of the higher education social mission have something major in common. Each has been widely judged to be socially—for all of society—valuable and worthy of provision, but each is privately for the individual provider—unprofitable.

(Weisbrod et al., 2008, p. 3)

The expectation that public universities are subsidized in support of this social mission, carries with it the assumption that the purpose of higher education is not intended for profit. That is, the institutional mission of public service is “interlocked) with the teaching and research” in the ways knowledge is transmitted to the community through applied research, consulting and analysis, and service learning (Scott, 2006, p. 24). A key feature of the mission of higher education at public institutions is to generate new knowledge and teach or transmit that knowledge in the classroom or the community—for greater social benefit of citizens in the state and sometimes the nation and beyond. Assumptions about the of profit are called into question over educational values and commercial interests in athletics. Yet, these are the same commercial influences the rest of the campus must contend with.

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